In his review of Inside Llewyn Davis, Andrew Klavan asks, “What did I miss?” It is a question I fear many in my generation will be asking as they approach the new Coen Brothers film about a folksinger from Greenwich Village. Inside Llewyn Davis lacks the clever plot twists of early hits like Miller’s Crossing, the dark psyche of Barton Fink, and the enjoyable supporting characters of The Big Lebowski. But, no two Coen Brothers movies are ever alike; in fact, to appreciate them as auteurs one must have a predilection for the unique versus the familiar.
This is probably why the few folk singers who remain from those early Village days sound off like cranky seniors in a nursing home, demanding that the Coens’ film knows nothing about the way things really were, contrary to the first-hand memory of T. Bone Burnett who was consulted in the recreation of the infamous Manhattan neighborhood circa 1961. But, everyone’s memory is different, as are their motivations. Jim Glover, half of the real-life folk duo Jim and Jean, used local newspaper coverage to snort at the film before diving into various half-baked conspiracy theories regarding the Kennedy assassination, the NSA, and the insistence that the F.B.I. kept him under surveillance in the 1950s because his father was a “fellow traveler” (code term for Communist sympathizer).
While leftist politics were a definite influence on the Greenwich scene, folks looking for Reds on the big screen will be as disappointed as those believing the film to be nothing but a glorified biopic of “Mayor of MacDougal Street” Dave Van Ronk and his cohorts. Tongue-in-cheek commentary on the leftist class structure typical to the folk music scene does more to motivate plot and character development than dig into the movement’s intellectual and political underpinnings. In fact, it is Llewyn’s struggle with culture that feeds his musical genius; he is neither uptown intellectual nor downtown middle class. While he’s willing to thumb his way from New York to Chicago to meet an agent, he is unwilling to compromise his artistic vision for commercial success.
Inside Llewyn Davis isn’t the story of one person. Rather, it is the expression of a movement struggling to find its voice as it enters into adulthood. By 1961, folk was no longer the stuff of the 1930s Popular Front. And while Hootenannys on the campuses of Ivy League universities and elite liberal arts colleges popularized hits by The Weavers and The Kingston Trio, folk had yet to break into mainstream popular music. Sure, by the end of the decade folk heroes like Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary would commercialize the folk movement, much to the chagrin of more politicized (and consequently obscure) singers like Pete Seeger, Dave Van Ronk and Phil Ochs. But, that was yet to be and Llewyn Davis, epitomizing folk itself, highlights the movement’s very real struggles between commercial gain and musical purity, high and low art, purpose and performance.
This is the genius of the Coen Brothers. Just as The Dude was “the man for his time and place,” Llewyn Davis is the man of his time and place, an expression of a movement determined to thrive in the face of doubt, criticism, and repeated defeat. Through the struggles of the fictitious folk artist, the Coen Brothers used a genre created to collectivize the middle class to tell the story of an individual’s ability to rise above the demands and doubts of the masses in order to stay true to his music and himself.
And this is what makes the film both beautiful and accessible to viewers who lack even the most basic knowledge of the folk scene: In the end it really is a story about the triumph of an incredibly human underdog.
And it’s got some good tunes to boot.